BY ROGER THOMAS
Let me start with a confession. I have made it before, but It needs to be written again. I did not like “Mad Max: Fury Road.” It may have been the night I saw it, what was going through my mind that night, or something else. Whatever it was, I did not see the film the way the Academy did. “Mad Max” earned ten Oscar nominations including one for “Best Picture” and ended up taking home six awards. I have never gone back and watched “Max” again, but that is on my “bucket list.” Perhaps, I was simply wrong.
There is a new sci-fi film trying for Oscar’s short list of best films for 2016. Many are predicting that “Arrival” will be an Oscar favorite. One website is stating that “Arrival” will likely get ten nominations including Picture, Actress, Director and Screenplay. If this happens, I will again be scratching my head wondering: “Why?”
There are things about “Arrival” that I enjoyed. The opening five minutes are tremendous. I was sure in the beginning that I was going to experience something incredible. Early on, as the world responds to an alien invasion, there are a great many moments that seem authentic. Would our government react that way? Would the common citizens respond as they do? All that seems plausible and maybe even accurate.
Then there is Amy Adams, the heart and mind of the film. Adams has been nominated for an Oscar five times but has never won; she does Oscar-worthy work here. I will be surprised if she does not get a nomination. However, I will also be surprised if she wins. This is not the typical role that Academy members like to embrace.
The filmmakers should also be commended for many of the choices they made. The effects, the production design, the sound, and the cinematography all enhance this story.
There is also the element in the story where the people of earth are trying to determine if the aliens are friends or foes. “Arrival” does a good job with paranoia; if a fleet of ships came out of the sky I am pretty sure our nation, and others as well, would be quite upset. But herein lies the flaw of the film. We have seen all this before. Space intruders good or evil? I think the question has been asked and answered more times than we can count, and “Arrival” does not answer the question in some unique way that one sits up and says “Wow.” At best, it is “Oh, okay.”
Another problem with the film is that time spent trying to communicate with the aliens. Of course, again, if aliens arrive on our planet, we will certainly want to talk with them. That would probably require a linguist like the one Adams plays. However, the flaw is that learning a language, even one from a distant planet, does play well on screen. It becomes tedious after the second attempt.
Several people have asked me if the film is like “Contact.” I had not thought to make the comparison until the question was posed. “Contact” is a better film for numerous reasons including that great line: “The universe is a pretty big place. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us… seems like an awful waste of space. Right?”
In closing, I will wait to see what the Academy will do with “Arrival.” For me, there are plenty of other films that should be on the “Best Picture” list. But if the Academy embraces “Arrival,” I might have to do a double feature of sci-fi films I need to give a second chance: “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Arrival.”